“It’s not that you want to sing, it’s that you have to sing” – Joe Williams
Best known as Count Basie’s “Number One Son,” Joe Williams (1918-1999) represented the last of the big band singers. With his powerful and warm baritone voice he sang everything from blues and ballads to jazz and scat. His energy and swinging style earned him praise from both critics and fellow musicians throughout his six decade career. His impressive resume includes singing with famous bands such as Johnny Long, Jimmy Noone, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, and of course, Count Basie.
Williams was born as Joseph Goreed in Cordele, Georgia on December 12, 1918. When he was very young his mother moved to Chicago in order to escape the racism plaguing the south. Williams was musically inclined at a young age and enjoyed playing the piano and singing in the choir at his mother’s church. As a teenager he led a choral quartet called The Jubilee Boys that toured around Chicago churches. He also enjoyed listening to the radio and was especially inspired by famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. In 1934 he changed his name to Joe Williams.
His first jazz gig was with the Johnny Long Orchestra when he was seventeen. After that he sang solo in various Chicago clubs performing both jazz and blues. At one club Williams even gave a performance of the opera piece I Pagliacci while wearing a clown suit. His big break came in 1943 when he was between singing jobs and working security at the Regal Theater. There he met many jazz musicians he idolized as a child including Duke Ellington. The manager of the theater was impressed with Williams and sent him to Boston to sing in Lionel Hampton’s band with the famous Dinah Washington. This opportunity led to his first recording with Andy Kirk and his band Clouds of Joy in 1947. Several years later in 1951 he recorded his hit song “Every Day I Have the Blues” with the King Kolax band.
During this time Williams was frequently changing bands and had a short stint with some of the members of Count Basie’s band. These members later convinced Basie to hire Williams and they performed together for seven years between 1954 and 1961. His first recording of several with Count Basie was “Every Day," which contained his most famous songs, including “Alright, O.K., You Win,” “Teach Me Tonight,” and Roll ‘em Pete.” He also had the opportunity to sing with many famous female jazz singers including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday. The collaboration between Basie and Williams brought both of them great success. Williams’s singing was attributed to bringing back Basie’s popularity and appearances with the Basie band made Williams a star. During this time he was called the best male vocalist by international critics, radio disc-jockeys, and readers of several music magazine.
In 1961 Williams and Basie amicably parted ways so Williams could return to solo singing. He made more than 45 albums after leaving, collaborating with musicians such as Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, George Shearing, Harry “Sweets” Edison and the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones big band, his personal favorite. Williams also did several additional performances with Basie up until Basie’s death in 1984.
He continued to perform well into the 1990s, winning praise from critics. One stated, “Aging gracefully is no easy task for a vocalist. Joe Williams defies the odds by getting better as time passes, and he should consider giving lessons.”
Williams also had numerous television and movie appearances. He was friends with Bill Cosby and was a regular on the television sitcom The Cosby Show in the 1980s. He played Bill Cosby’s father-in-law, Grandpa Al. He has appeared many times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, more than any other male jazz vocalist. He also did several televised performances with the Boston Pops. Singing with a symphony was one of his favorite experiences. He said, “I love the lush sound of all the horns, strings, and tympani. My soul soars as all the round tones just roll out with joy. I get so involved with listening that I really don’t want it to end.”
Williams received numerous awards throughout his career. He won two Grammys, one in 1985 for the song “I Just Want to Sing” and one in 1992 for the album “Ballad and Blues Master.” His album “Every Day” was placed in the Recording Industry Hall of Fame in 1993. Williams was awarded two honorary Doctorate of Music degrees from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and Hamilton College in New York. In 1991 the Society of Singers held a tribute to Williams in Las Vegas. It included performances by Henry Mancini, Della Reese, Nancy Wilson, and Vikki Carr. Williams won the Ebony Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Joe Williams died on March 29, 1999 in Las Vegas. He was 80. Fans, critics, and musicians all mourned his loss. Singer Robert Goulet said “At the age of 80, Joe could sing better than most people at the age of 20. He was one of the greatest jazz and blues singers of all time, and he was such a good man, too.”
(Because the list of albums that feature Joe Williams is so long, I’ve included only the most popular selections. A full discography can be found on the internet.)
- Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings
- Jazz 'Round Midnight: Joe Williams
- The Greatest! Count Basie Plays, Joe Williams Sings Standards
- The Best of Joe Williams: The Roulette, Solid State & Blue Note Years
- Autumn in Paris
- Presenting Joe Williams & Thad Jones/Mel Lewis
- Here's to Life
- Dave Pell's Prez Conference
- Swingin' Night at Birdland LIVE
- I Just Wanna Sing
- One O'Clock Jump
- Definitive Joe Williams
- Joe Williams & Friends
- That Holiday Feelin'
- Having the Blues Under Europea
- A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry
- Ballad & Blues Master
- Every Day: The Best of the Verve Years
- Me & The Blues
- One for My Baby
- Nothin' But the Blues
- In Good Company
- Blues Masters – The Essential History of the Blues v. 2
- Goodyear Jazz Concert with Eddie Condon, 1961
- Newport Jazz Festival, 1962
- The Moonshine War, 1970
- Jazz at the Smithsonian, 1982
- The Monterey Jazz Festival, 1986
- Joe Williams, A Song is Born, 1991
- Filmography: www.eonline.com/Facts/People/0,12,16848,00.html